Friday, September 12, 2014

Alfidi Capital Observes BoxWorks 2014

BoxWorks 2014 was the latest display of how Box builds its ecosystem.  I attended for insights into the secret sauce of how an upstart gets other firms to adopt its collaborative tech.  I have never used Box but I should probably give it a shot.  Find my original genius in bold text, as always.

The kickoff chat between Box CEO Aaron Levie and media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg was cool.  They must have played some Disney film score when he came out but I didn't recognize it because I don't have kids to raise.  The big lesson was that a strong mission statement, a powerful brand, and great tech make a successful business model.  Okay, Jeff, but what about human talent?  The gene pool of talented writers and animators is only so deep, so the great tech among media giants will have to develop AIs that mimic those human abilities.  Jeff did confirm that the size of the movie going market and the talent pool of animators are limits on the number of movies that studios can produce.  I was stunned to hear Jeff say that the digital volume of a typical DreamWorks movie is so dense that they have to use collaborative software to track the edits.  I look forward to the rich video and user-driven animation that tech is supposed to unleash, but we get what we pay for.  Many of the amateur mashups on YouTube are so derivative and uninspired that they're not worth watching.  Jeff's best lesson from the start of his career is that exceeding expectations in any job or mission assignment lead to winning.  Okay, Jeff, but I tried that in large financial service firms and it only got me fired because no one would tolerate it.  Jeff got lucky and I did not.

Aaron and his top Box people had more announcements to share.  Their new platform offers content management to non-profits.  That follows the latest trend in Silicon Valley enterprises.  Enterprises want to do well by doing good.  Box has been in mobile file sharing since before smartphones and cloud servers made it easy and cheap.  It's only fair that non-profits now get in on the action.  The big product announcements were Box configurations for individuals using MS Office, cloud multi-users, and an upcoming annotation feature in 2015.  I have seen other purveyors push routinized workflow products and now Box Workflow is coming in 2015 for rule-based routinized operations.  I was quite impressed with the look of these products; the MS Office compatible Box display looked better than SharePoint as a knowledge management solution and the workflow looked like a wise use of BRMS.

The special surprise guest at the keynote was Oscar-winning dude Jared Leto.  I had never heard of the guy.  He brought his Oscar to pass around in the audience, as if a bunch of tech middle managers had something to add to his artistic ability.  Aaron compared the Oscar favorably to Box's Crunchy award and said it must be the height of Jared's career to appear at a software conference.  Jared stayed in character as himself throughout this cameo at BoxWorks, and endorsed Box's ability to share artists' content.  One audience member asked an excellent question about how the cloud can impact older art forms that are not digitized.  Aaron and Jared think it will help older art find new audiences.  I had a mental image of a bunch of artists around the nation collaborating on a sculpture in real time, directing some robotic arm in a studio by uploading diagrams into a Box workflow engine.

I spent some time at the 1st Annual Box Partner Summit that ran concurrently with the first day of the main conference.  The main theme of "commitment" was everywhere in the quotes from senior Box people.  I expect banality at most conferences but I did not know enterprise software managers were deep enough to quote Sartre.  Box leverages its partners' domain knowledge to identify pain points of prospective enterprise clients.  Properly incentivized partners of all sizes are willing to refer enterprise clients to box for SaaS solutions.  Partner rebates are great if they grow earnings first and revenue second.  That may be hard for some growing cloud companies to swallow because they need to impress Wall Street with pro-forma EBITDA if they want to go public.  I wonder how CMOs and CEOs calculate the effectiveness of such incentives.  Good programs should have upsell options with measurable ROIs.  Kudos to Box for positioning its offerings partly as KM solutions for knowledge workers.

I had to explore the finance and legal workshop because I know startups that need to collaborate in those areas.  Permissions management in box sounds a lot like SharePoint, which is really more a policy issue than a tech issue.  I am not clear on how Box is different from SharePoint or Google Drive.  It obviously does document management, file synchronization and sharing, and workflows.  I suspect the Box advantage is its API allowing custom-developed apps that do what competitors cannot do.

The keynote and fireside chat with Jim Collins was phenomenal.  He thinks senior corporate leaders will increasingly come from CIO and IT ranks because enterprise computing has become so important.  I only agree with him if he means the software sector; I'm pretty sure CEOs in manufacturing and energy need to know how to make physical things work.  He organized his talk around ten major questions, which I won't repeat here because the background he presented on each one is in his body of work in Good to Great and the works on his "Tools" page.  His bonus question was inspired by advice Peter Drucker gave him to think about being useful to the world.  Jim's answer was to give moments of kindness and encouragement to others.  Changing others' lives and making people better mattered to Jim.  That may be why the audience gave him a standing ovation.  I have never seen a standing ovation for a guest speaker at a business event.  Wow.

Aaron Levie's chat with Jim explored more of this work.  Jim thinks Information Age management science means different applications of the same principles he studies.  Selecting people matters more and leading a network has a less formal power dynamic.  Jim talked a lot about how enterprises must always adhere to their values.  That's great but I've always known that a company's stated values are less real than the values top executives model in their daily behavior.  Aaron Levie comes across as engaging, irreverent, and intelligent.  If he and his top team exhibit those values when they're not in the public eye then Box is on the right track.

The CIO panel reminded me of the work I avoid by being in finance.  They all thought that business process transformation opens a huge market for unmet needs in enterprise collaboration.  I have never worked on a waterfall chart-driven process but that's okay, because these folks say requirements-driven planning moving from waterfall iterations to collaborative iterations.  I need to see evidence that corporate boards demand more tech-savvy directors who can evaluate enterprise risks.  I think that may be just psychological projection coming from CIOs who aspire to board memberships.  All of the anecdotal reviews I've read on board performance is that they are mostly lap dogs asleep at the wheel, selected specifically because they won't challenge management.

The VC panel on innovations was my next stop.  Professional board membership must be lucrative for VCs and others, but it comes with the caveats I mentioned immediately above.  The VCs mentioned traits like effective communication ability and other successful things that mark good leaders.  They did not mention honesty and personal integrity as desirable executive traits, but they did admit the necessity of firing any key executive who does not embody a firm's core values.  One key insight for tech startups is that lead scoring algorithms now generate significantly higher yields from marketing spending.  I was stunned when someone said tech megacorps (i.e., Google, Facebook) spend $10B on a buyout just to defend their $100B market cap.  That blew my mind.  This amazing insight implies headline deals are driven partly by celebrity billionaires defending their net worth with mergers and acquisitions.  Their parting thought was that investors should favor startups where the cost of capital and other macroeconomic conditions won't affect a business model.

The health care sector still has an innovation curve even after the ACA, according to the next panel.  I do not understand how the ACA's payment reforms will work unless they are intended as a stalking horse for a single-payer system.  I learned that the government pays hospitals to adopt digitized record systems, which is probably more costly than a simple regulatory mandate for any provider who wants to access the Medicare or VA payment networks.  Like I said, I just don't get this kind of reform.  The biggest insurance plan underwriters are able to drive demand for optimal payment networks.  They can identify high quality, low cost providers and eliminate variance from their PPO networks.  Data on these pricing variances in treatments allows buyers to eliminate sub-optimal choices.  The private sector makes that efficiency work because competition for services remains strong in a free market with many choices.  It will be less efficient in a market dominated by government-backed exchanges.  This is one reason why providers can't prove whether they save money by using Medicare's Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs).  This may have been the only panel where none of the panelists mentioned Box, knowledge management, shareable content, or collaboration.  The experts were so contentious because the ACA has politicized health care and skewed the sector's natural tech evolution toward choices that favor top-down intervention.

The retail panel sounded interesting because it's a sector I rarely explore.  The panelists said they want real-time data from all channels on all platforms, and that's a big market opportunity for SaaS.  It was depressing to hear someone admit that most retailers still live in a company-driven data model (internal focus) and not a customer-focused data model optimized for mobile (external focus).  Retail or any sector reacting to real-time data must have a fast DevOps cycle.  Predictive analytics adds value in DevOps by showing where proactive IT fixes should focus.  The weakest link in any retail business model is the high-turnover, low-wage workforce.  The best IT innovations must reduce the cognitive load on those low-skill workers so they make fewer mistakes.  That's why automation will eliminate many fast-food jobs.  Bring on the social CRM and get rid of the minimum-wage workforce before unions can organize them.

My favorite panel was on government innovation, and not just because hot babe Karen Appleton was the moderator.  The federal government's approach to data management and innovation varies by agency.  The FCC wrestles with over 200 legacy systems while it maps broadband capability for the public.  DOD's high-cost early adoption of tech still makes waves when program expenses draw scrutiny, so other agencies should jump on board that gravy train while it's still on the tracks and ask to share in DOD's tech bounty.  Federal law hobbles innovation by classifying an agency spending money on another agency as a felony if said spending does not benefit the original agency.  Wow, that's depressing.  No wonder every agency has internal counsel.  The FCC panelist was extremely thought-provoking by wondering whether public scrutiny in a democracy combined with social media can harm risk-takers who might otherwise have productive government careers.  He said it's also worth wondering whether authoritarian governments can capitalize on high tech faster than democracies because they are under less scrutiny without checks and balances.  Wow, heady stuff.

I sat front and center for that government panel because I had to ask them my only question of the conference.  I asked the panel for their thoughts on two government programs with the word "innovation" in them:  the NSF's Innovation Corps and the use of the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs) in GSA's 18F incubator.  Aneesh Chopra, the former White House CTO on the panel, loved both programs.  The I-Corps trains people in Steve Blank's methods to commercialize the vast research produced in the Federal Lab Consortium.  The PIFs in 18F have built some interesting tools for other agencies and anticipates the creation of the US Digital Service.  The panel experts had done tons of thinking on driving government innovation; now the world gets to hear my ideas for Uncle Sam to use.  I want to see these innovators push more agencies to advertise their needs on  DOD should use it to farm out simpler fighter aircraft concepts that won't violate Augustine's Law #16 on astronomical costs.  It would also be great if FedRAMP used Cloudonomics metrics.  Oh yeah, let's get veteran-owned tech startups into I-Corps' pipeline so they get the inside track on tech transfer to the marketplace.

I caught the tail end of Aaron Levie's chat with Vinod Khosla before everything ended.  Vinod thinks Jim Collins' work is bull-stuff.  Funny!  He advises people not to try to predict the future.  Just go out and build something.  I hope he means "fail fast" and move on.

I was pleased to notice that the Box employees working as show floor guides included some very attractive women in tight jeans and purple Box t-shirts.  I was hoping to see some more of that kind of box but did not get the chance, if you know what I mean.  I also prowled the show floor and asked several booth sponsors whether they thought the iCloud celebrity photo hack was a wake-up call for cloud security.  The collective shoulder shrug I got in response told me that I may have been talking to salespeople instead of DevOps people who fix security holes.

Box did very well with BoxWorks.  I did not have time for the Jimmy Eats World concert but that's okay.  Plenty of youngsters got to have fun.  I'll have more fun at BoxWorks next year.